Brotherhood of the Tomb by Daniel Easterman


Giv’at ha-Mivtar, North Jerusalem October 1968

The tombs had always been there. Aloof at first, then hidden, then lost entirely - a secret place where death went about his business unseen and uninterrupted. For centuries, the city had been remote, almost irrelevant. The living had become the dead, their mourners had in turn been mourned, and always the fields of death had been left strictly to themselves. No one had built his house over them or set his plough to their earth or put his sheep to graze among them.

In the city, there had been fire and famine. Armies had passed by. High towers had fallen, the sun had turned to blood, ashes had drifted on the wind like black snow at the end of winter. And new gods had come to dwell on the ruins of the Temple.

A year ago, the old God had returned in battle. Israeli armies had taken East Jerusalem, hurling their Arab opponents back across the Jordan. The shofar had been blown beside the Temple Mount once more. Now bulldozers were nuzzling the ancient hills, digging out roads, clearing the ground to make way for houses and schools and hospitals. The descendants of the dead had come to claim their heritage.

In the previous month, a bulldozer had been nibbling its way into a hill called Giv’at ha-Mivtar, just to the west of the Nablus Road, when one of the workmen saw the first tomb. There were three in all, grouped together on separate levels. One was accessible only from the roof, its entrance having already been covered by the new road that was being laid.

A team of archaeologists from the Department of Museums and Antiquities had been given a month in which to examine the tombs and their contents. At the end of that period, in a few days’ time in fact, the bones were to be returned to their sarcophagi and reburied. Then the bulldozers and rollers would return, tar and concrete would be poured in molten streams, and the dead would sleep again.

Gershon Aharoni stumbled, swore beneath his breath, and turned to the man behind him.

‘Be careful, there’s a bit of a step here,’ he said, forcing a smile, holding a helping hand towards the Italian. He had to bite back his annoyance, his irritation at being here at all. There was urgent work to do back at the Museum, and little enough time to do it in. He could thump Kaplan for having given him this assignment.

Do your best, Gershon. Show him round. Get him interested. Let him poke about a bit, get his hands dirty, find an artefact. Plant something where he can stumble over it, make him feel involved. But for God’s sake, soften him up. If you need to, tell him we expect to find the remains of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and all twelve Apostles any day now. And John the Baptist’s head and Salome’s tits if he looks gullible enough.

But get him in the mood to spend some money. Big money: enough for a research foundation, a new museum. Let him use his imagination, if he’s got one. The Bishop Migliau Trust for Biblical Archaeology - let him try that on for size. He can have it in ten-foot-high letters if it turns him on. Just get him to my office tomorrow morning looking like a man who signs cheques for a living.

‘Thank you. It is darker here than I thought it would be,’ said the bishop, resting momentarily on Aharoni’s hand, like a reluctant dancer being led to the floor.

Aharoni swung the lamp high, shedding a sulphurous light across the loculi, long, narrow shafts cut deep into the walls of the chamber to serve as burial niches, some for whole bodies, others for limestone ossuaries that sometimes held the bones of an entire family.

‘We’ll have the generator working again in the morning. If you prefer, we can come back then.’ And let me get back to my pots for the rest of this evening.

It was dark outside. The workmen across the road had gone home. No one had been on the dig since four o’clock, when the generator that powered the lamps had packed up. Since there was in any case plenty of work to do back at the Institute, recording and measuring finds, photographing artefacts, and reconstructing pots, everyone had gone back there. A technician would be sent out early next morning to get the lights working again. In the meantime, Aharoni used a hurricane lamp to show their guest round the empty tombs.

‘No, I am very happy. I think perhaps it is more exciting like this, more ... authentic’

Bishop Giancarlo Migliau was a big man, over six feet tall, and all in all he made a presence in the tomb. He was in his mid-forties, a lean, sublimated man, all flesh without substance, heavy boned but light in his bearing, as though his body did not belong entirely in the space it occupied. He hung in the chamber, as it were, filling it, not by bulk but by the simple fact of being there. In Aharoni he awakened memories of a scarecrow standing in a field after a storm, its black arm casting a ragged shadow on rows of sodden corn.

He was a rich man, descended from a family of Venetian aristocrats, one of the few that had not faded into obscurity or died off entirely in the eighteenth century. His distant ancestors had been Jews, but from the time of their first ennoblement they had given offspring to the Church. Giancarlo’s brothers followed in that other family tradition of banking, dealing no longer from trestle tables on the Rialto, but out of astonishing marble office blocks in Mestre, Rome and Milan.

Giancarlo had for years now been a passionate amateur of Biblical archaeology. He attended conferences whenever he was able, contributed occasional papers to the more popular Catholic journals, and gave liberally from his personal fortune to endow research fellowships in the field. At least one month of every year he spent in Israel, visiting archaeological sites, touring museums and meeting scholars at the Franciscan Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem.

On several occasions, he had helped out at digs, wielding a trowel and soft-bristled brush, uncovering fragments of pots and lamps to be handed over to the experts for cleaning and assessment. They had been in the main sites dating from New Testament times, places where he could lay his hands on an artefact as it came up out of the clay and think to himself: ‘This pot was here when Jesus lived on earth’, or put his feet on a stretch of pavement and whisper: ‘Perhaps Jesus walked here, on these very stones.’

His imagination had been stirred by the discovery of the tombs at Giv’at ha-Mivtar. As far as could be ascertained, they contained burials dating from between the first century BC and the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. The work of clearing them had been too specialized and urgent to let amateur diggers take part, but he had received permission to pay this visit and to see the contents of the tombs currently being examined at the Israel Museum.

‘Is this where you found the bones of the man you think was crucified? The ones I saw back at the museum?’

They were in Tomb I, the largest of the four, in the lower burial chamber, a rectangular space off which radiated a total of eight loculi.

‘In here.’ Aharoni lifted the lamp towards a shaft on the right. ‘The bones were in an ossuary along with those of a child.’

Migliau remembered the bones: two heels transfixed by a large nail, shins that had been shattered by a heavy blow. They had made him giddy with a sort of recognition. The man might very well have been one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, might have hung on the Mount of Golgotha inches away from the Son of God and the world’s redemption. He was close. He felt it in his bones.

What was he called? Was there a name?’

‘Jehohannon. The name was written on the side of the ossuary in Aramaic’

The bishop had touched the bone gently with a finger. There had been a fragment of wood between it and the head of the nail. Roman wood and Roman metal, God’s bane. It felt warm in the tomb and close, as though the air had not been changed in centuries.

Migliau sighed. The low-ceilinged chamber seemed to press down on him. The lamp flickered. Shadows wormed their way across the roughly-hewn rock walls. He had never been able to bear the thought of death, the knowledge of decay.

What’s over here?’ he asked, moving across to the southern wall. ‘They seem to have left a large space without any niches.’

‘Yes, we thought that was a little odd. But you have to remember that the tomb was far from full. They weren’t obliged to cut more niches. The limestone’s very hard in places.’

The bishop ran a hand along the wall.

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